Scott's Note: Andrew Nette writes a lot of pieces (and they are very good ones) for places like CrimeReads, but it has been some years since he released a new book. Now, with Orphan Road, he has brought out a new novel, and he's here to tell us something about it.
Take it away, Andrew...
It has been a long time between novels for me. Over six years to be precise since the publication of Gunshine State, the first book to feature my character, Gary Chance.
Chance is a former Australian army driver, ex-bouncer, and professional thief. In Gunshine State, he was part of a crew on a heist being organised by an aging standover man in Surfers Paradise, a city in the tropical northern Australian state of Queensland. As is nearly always the case, the heist goes wrong, and Chance ends up in Thailand, where he has no choice but to avail himself of an aspect of the country’s world-famous medical tourism services – plastic surgery. With a new, but not so wonderful, face, he returns to Australia to settle scores with the individual responsible for the botched Queensland job.
Orphan Road sees Chance drifting and in need of work. An offer comes from a former employer, once notorious Melbourne social identity, now aging owner of a failing S&M club, Vera Leigh (who appeared in Gunshine State). A shadowy real estate developer is trying to squeeze Leigh out of a rapidly gentrifying Melbourne. But she has a rescue plan involving what was one of Australia’s biggest heists, Melbourne’s Great Bookie Robbery.
On April 21, 1976, a well-organised gang stole as much as three million dollars, a fortune at the time, from bookmakers at the Victoria Club in the city’s CBD. It is unclear how much was really stolen, but it was certainly far more than was officially reported. Whatever the case, the money was never recovered, no one was ever arrested, and technically the case remains unsolved.
But while the gang got away with the crime, they soon fell out over the distribution of its proceeds, leaving a trail of killings. Everyone associated with the crime has since died, either by natural causes or violently.
In Orphan Road I wanted to build on this notorious real-life story by having Vera Leigh maintain that money was not the only thing stolen that day in April 1976. So was a stash of uncut South African diamonds, and she wants Chance’s help to locate them. The problem is that Chance and Leigh are not the only ones who are looking.
Among fictional devices, I have always been attracted to the idea that the heist nearly always goes wrong. This can happen because of a complication with the actual robbery itself or when the members of the heist gang fall out amongst themselves afterward. In Orphan Road, I wanted to take the idea a step further, by stretching out the ramifications of the heist going wrong by nearly half a century.
A solid made-for-television series, The Great Bookie Robbery, aired in Australia in 1986 and is easy to track down on DVD. Less easy to find is the Australian film, Robbery, released a year earlier in 1985, and based on the real-life crime. Simon Chilvers is an elite Special Air Services officer who is cashiered from the army after killing a man on a routine training exercise. He pulls together a group of former soldiers to rob a Melbourne bookie club on a major racing day. While the heist goes off without a hitch, problems occur when a criminal boss named Webster gets wind of the crime and wants a share of the money. The film doesn’t quite hold together but is nonetheless worth watching as a cultural curio.
Although it is in no way related to the Great Bookie Robbery, I’d like to think that Orphan Road is also imbued with the spirit of one of my favourite Australian crime movies, Money Movers (1978). The film revolves around two security guards who plan to rob the armoured car service they work for. But things become complicated when an immoral criminal boss discovers the scheme and wants in on the job. The film has some uniquely Australian characteristics, including a strong riff on class relations and big business corruption in the 1970s.
There are several crime fiction influences on Orphan Road and the character of Gary Chance. Donald Westlake’s character of Parker and Australian crime writer Garry Disher’s creation, Wyatt, are two inspirations I’ve discussed previously. Orphan Road was written over Melbourne’s numerous Covid lockdowns, during which I reread Dan G. Marlowe’s gritty as hell 1962 heist gone wrong novel, The Name of the Game is Death. While Gary Chance is not a cold-blooded sociopath who expresses very little remorse in killing, like the central character in Marlowe’s novel, I was attracted by Marlowe’s prose style and how pitiless aspects of his story are.
The main character in The Name of the Game Is Death, who is only known by a series of false names, returned as Earl Drake in One Endless Hour (1969), which I also read while writing Orphan Road. Amongst other things, the story features Drake spending months as a terribly disfigured prisoner and having to engineer a plan to get a new face and escape jail.
Another influence on the character of Gary Chance is Wallace Stroby’s excellent series of books featuring the female criminal, Crissa Stone. While I didn’t re-read it whilst writing Orphan Road, in the back of my mind was Stroby’s 2021 book, Kings of Midnight. In it, Stone gets involved with a retired gangster and one of the few surviving members of the gang behind the infamous real-life Lufthansa heist from Kennedy Airport in 1978 (popularised in the 1990 film, Goodfellas). The gangster recruits Stone to help him retrieve two million dollars from the heist that was hidden by a recently deceased mobster. This was the inspiration for the idea of a story revolving around the idea that money wasn’t the only thing stolen from the Melbourne Bookie Club that day in 1976.
You can pick up Orphan Road here: